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The Invisible Scent

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Brosius did more research. He read Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses and realized just how powerful the nose is. He learned that gazillions of years ago, when primitive ancestors of man were living in the ocean, scent was used to detect an enemy or find a mate. The sense ultimately became so powerful that a heap of tissue on top of the nerve cord evolved into the brain. “Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalks,” Ackerman writes. “We think because we smelled.”

Brosius’s mission became clear. Ackerman had outlined it for him: “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

He had to find those undergrowths, everywhere. The smell of dirt made him happy and inspired a feeling of playfulness and youth. Why? He reasoned that as children, people dug around a lot in the yard. Kids grew up smelling dirt. Brosius shoveled some soil from his farm into a plastic bag and brought it back to New York. He and a partner had started a company called Demeter, and Brosius recalls throwing his bag of dirt on the table and telling everyone in the room, “I want this.

The company used a costly technology to analyze the molecules in the air inside the bag. Once the individual molecules were identified, Brosius was able to add a few notes of his own. The result: He had recaptured the joy he felt when smelling dirt from his backyard. He gave it the name Soaked Earth.

When I took a whiff, it didn’t smell like regular dirt. It was a magical kind of dirt. Instantly familiar. Memories came flooding back to me—strong emotional currents, real gushers. I could see the rickety gas station near my childhood home in upstate New York. I remembered looking at it from the bench seat of my grandfather’s pickup truck, which was always covered in dog hair. We were going fishing, and outside the gas station was a sign scrawled in red paint. nightcrawlers, it read. In my hands was a white container, and when I popped the lid, I could see the worms squirming inside the dark-brown dirt. I hadn’t thought about that day in over twenty years.

“Brosius is not so much an innovator as an explorer,” says Pamela Dalton, a senior researcher at the Monell Center, an institute in Philadelphia devoted to smell and taste. “He’s exploring which smells resonate with people rather than teaching them the next great odor they should be dousing themselves with.” Like CBMusk. Brosius had never smelled a musk deer, but he designed a scent entirely around what he thought it would smell like. “It seems to have one of those love-it-or-hate-it reactions,” he says.

I sprayed on the fragrance for Chandler Burr, a former scent critic at the Times. He grabbed my wrist, pulled his nose close, and began to tickle my skin with machine-gun-like bursts of air: sniff, breathe, sniff, breathe. I could see the muscles on Burr’s face tighten and contort into the shape of raw disgust, as if he’d just been forced to slowly chew through a dozen rotten eggs.

“Have you smelled this?”

Of course I had.

“Do you like it?”

Kind of. Yeah.

“Are you straight?”

I nodded. Why?

“Because that smell isn’t musk. It’s not even close to musk. That …” He looked back at my wrist. “That is the smell of man’s anus—a very clean man’s anus.” (Brosius’s response: “I can see where he would get that. That is exactly what musk is designed to do. It is designed to be an erotic perfume.”)

Compared to other perfumers, Brosius is “a literal olfactory artist,” Burr says. “His genius is to re-create not just the smell of objects but places and states of mind, moments that are frozen and eternal.” Michelyn Camen, who runs a blog for perfume aficionados (“fumeheads,” they are called), describes Brosius as “a Mozart, not a Salieri.” His creations remind her of the movie Inception, in which futuristic mercenaries engage in clandestine warfare by planting undiscovered thoughts in people’s subconsciouses.

Since hibiscus didn’t work, Brosius had to find another flower for his invisible scent. Violets contain ionone, a chemical compound that can make a smell “appear and disappear over and over,” as Brosius puts it. But ultimately, he settled on jasmine. “The wonderful thing about jasmine is that it has this hypnotic quality, where if you smell it long enough, you kind of trance out,” he says.


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